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Topics For Explanatory Essay

After you have a topic idea, what's next? You have to develop information that you will put into your essay and decide on your audience and purpose. Then you will need to decide the point of view, tone, and style of writing you will use. Sound confusing? Don't worry. Just answer the following questions to get ready to write. You can open up a word processing program, copy these questions, and then answer them, or do it the old-fashioned way with paper and pen.

  1. Topic idea: ______________________________________________. (Write yours out.)
  2. What kind of expository essay is this? (How to? How does it work? Definition? Fact? Cause? History of?)

Gathering Ideas:

  1. List or cluster different aspects or parts of your topic.
  2. Circle the aspects which are most interesting to you. Cluster those.

Topic Evaluation:

  1. Do you have enough to say or too much? Do you need to narrow your topic or expand it?
  2. What sources can you use? Where can you find them?

Audience Evaluation

  1. What are some things your audience would be familiar with which you can compare your topic with?
  2. What do they already know?
  3. What would they be interested in knowing?
  4. What kind of tone would be best for this audience? (informational, satiric, humorous, folksy, professional?)
  5. Considering your audience, which point of view would be the most effective one to write in? Would it be better to write in the first person ("I" or "we"), second person ("you"), or third person (impersonal)?

Write Your Thesis

  1. Your purpose (What do you want audience to think, do, or know after reading? This will be related to what your audience doesn't know.)
  2. Turn your topic into a question: ___________________________________________
  3. Answer that question: __________________________________________________
  4. Make a thesis statement: _______________________________________________
  5. Essay map—sentence(s) which list main sub-topics: ______________________________________________________________ (These can be headers for sections of the paper.)

Essay Organization

  1. Which sort of organization would work best for you? Examples: chronological (in time), spatial (in space and time), process (step-by-step), topical (part-by-part), cause/effect, historical overview, comparison and contrast, or reverse expectations.
  2. Write a brief outline for how you will structure the body of the paper.

Intro and Conclusion

  1. Which of these introduction and conclusion ideas could you use? Reverse expectation, expectation fulfilled, scenario (imagined typical story, also called a case study), personal story, frame story, vivid description, conversation, definition, comparison and contrast, analogy, startling statistic or fact, quotation, story from book or movie.
  2. Choose the best one(s) for your essay and explain what you will do.

Tone, Voice, and Style

  1. Which person will you write in for your essay? (1st “I,” 2nd “you,” or 3rd “he, she, it.”) Why?
  2. What sort of tone will you have? Why? (Example: serious and informative, humorous, sarcastic, enthusiastic.)

When you want your students to practice explanatory writing, present them with one or more of the following prompts, grouped by difficulty. You can also introduce students to the PAST strategy to help them understand what each explanatory prompt is asking them to do.

Beginning Explanatory Prompts (Grades 4–5)

The following explanatory prompts are meant for students who are moving from paragraph writing to essay writing. 

1. Defining Friendship

Everyone needs friends. What qualities make someone a good friend? How can you be a friend for someone who needs one? Write an essay that explains ways to be a good friend.

2. A Job for Me

People do all kinds of jobs. Some people build. Others serve. Some teach. Others sell. Some people work on ships at sea, and others in skyscrapers in cities. What kind of job would you like to do? As a future worker, write an essay that names a job you would like, describes the work, and tells why you would like it.

3. An Admirable Person

We all have people we admire. They might be family members or friends. They might be singers, dancers, or actors. They might even be fictional characters. Whom do you admire most? Write an essay that names a person you admire and describes the qualities that make you like the person.

4. Sweet or Spicy?

Most people have a favorite food. What is yours? Is the food a common one that most other kids would know about, or a really special type? Is it sweet or spicy? In an essay, name your favorite food and describe to your classmates how it looks, smells, and tastes. Tell why you like it so much.

5. My Ideal Home

Most people can imagine a dream home. What would yours be? Big or small? In the country or in the city? How many floors? Would it be underground or up in a tree? As a young person, write an essay describing your dream home to a parent or guardian.

Intermediate Explanatory Prompts (Grades 6–8)

The following explanatory prompts are meant for students who do regular multi-paragraph writing. 

6. Connectivity Culture

Smartphones, tablet PCs, social media, and constant connectivity are changing the ways that people live, think, work, and connect. How do these technologies shape your life? Are you plugged in or tuned out? Why? Write an essay that explains to your fellow students the ways that you connect digitally and predicts how people will connect in the future.

7. Pets vs. People

Pets are not people. After all, dogs don’t go to school and cats don’t hold down jobs. But pet owners often consider their dogs and cats to be members of their families. In what ways are pets like people and in what ways are they not? Write a comparison-contrast essay explaining the similarities and differences between pets and people.

8. Defining Responsibility

A parent is responsible for taking care of children. A criminal is responsible for committing a crime. And teens are encouraged to make responsible choices. Just what does it mean to be “responsible”? Does it mean something different for young people than for adults? As a young person who is taking on more and more responsibilities, write an essay that defines what responsibility means to you, and explain the idea to those older than you.

9. Unique Celebrations

The Chinese celebrate New Year with a dragon dance. How do you celebrate New Year? What other special days do you observe? In an essay, explain a celebration or ritual that you know about. Tell what is usually done and why. Explain it to a reader who is new to the event.

10. Here's How It's Done

What are you really good at? Perhaps you can sink a free throw every time. Maybe you can identify birds by their songs, or make a very delicious homemade pizza. Think of a particular skill you have and could teach others. Then write an essay describing the process you use to accomplish this special feat. Provide enough detail so your reader can learn how to do the same thing.

Advanced Explanatory Prompts (Grades 9–12)

The following prompts are meant for high-school level writers. Students may need to research the topics in order to respond with sufficient depth and complexity. 

11. Addressing Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying involves using technology to harm, intimidate, and embarrass others. One form of cyberbullying called “trolling” occurs when anonymous Internet users intentionally post inflammatory content in an attempt to provoke and upset other users. While much effort has been made to counteract bullying in schools, the online and anonymous nature of cyberbullying makes it difficult to regulate. Write an essay that explains to your fellow students ways to counteract cyberbullying.

12. Moral Dilemmas

Consider a moral dilemma that a character in a novel or other piece of literature must face. It could be an issue you yourself have faced or one that is new to you. Explain what you would do if you were caught in the same situation. Then explain why you would handle it that way.

13. Talking About My Generation

Today’s youth are sometimes perceived as tech savvy, optimistic, and accepting. Other times, they are perceived as spoiled, coddled, and lazy, more interested in checking Instagram than in bearing down and working hard. In an essay, define the general characteristics of your generation. Provide evidence and reasons to support your definition.

14. Fashionable Expressions

Author Sarah MacLean believes “The most confident of women are those who believe in every scrap of fabric they wear.” Indeed, clothing is a form of self-expression for many people. Evaluate the clothing choices that you or someone else (famous or not) makes and explain what these fashion choices express about the person.

15. Comparing Future Career Paths

What do you want to do after you graduate from high school? Attend college? Hone your skills at a trade school? Or go straight into the professional world? Choose two options (college, trade school, job) and write an essay in which you analyze similarities and differences between the two options.

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